‘Masculinity’ as Understood by the APA

January 16, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Continued from yesterday.

In my first piece on the new APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Men and Boys, I pointed out that the description of masculine norms on offer by the Guidelines seems to bear little resemblance to, well, men and boys.  Some, such as “achievement,” seem to pretty accurately peg masculine aspirations and behavior.  Others such as “violence” and “anti-femininity” don’t even get close.  So I inquired as to how the APA came up with these categories and noted that there was no citation to any published work to let us know.

But now I have achieved enlightenment.  This 2012 piece does much to explain the APA’s new guidelines. 

It seems that, over many years, something called the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory was developed, apparently by one James Mahalik.  This is what he came up with:

Power Over Women


Disdain for Homosexuals



Emotional Control



Primacy of Work

Pursuit of Status


Of those, only “Self-Reliance” can be viewed in a positive light.  In short, what Mahalik and others viewed as masculine was an array of bad behaviors.  And sure enough, the new guidelines, while by no means a copy of Mahalik’s CMNI, still reflect his pejorative view on men and boys. 

But of course the same question arises with his CMNI as with the APA’s “constellation of behaviors.”  Where on earth did they come from?  This comes from Mahalik’s own paper:

“The construct was chosen because Mahalik (the researcher) posited the gender role norms from the most dominant or powerful group in a society affect the experiences of persons in that group, as well as persons in all other groups. Thus, the expectations of masculinity as constructed by Caucasian, middle- and upper-class heterosexuals should affect members of that group and every other male in U.S. society who is held up to those standards and experiences acceptance or rejection from the majority, in part, based on adherence to the powerful group’s masculinity norms.”

So now we know that Mahalik’s inventory was never meant to reflect all men, only affluent white ones.  But we’re still left to wonder where he came up with those traits that supposedly describe white men with good incomes.  The linked-to article offers this:

It should be getting more clear about the origin of those [first] four categories of the CMNI. (Violence, Power over women, Disdain for Homosexuality and Playboy) They are the basis to the ideas of hegemonic and/or toxic masculinity.  It seems that Mahalik must have liked the idea of hegemonic masculinity and toxic masculinity and liked them so much that he just inserted those into his inventory as norms not because there was any research that backed up those choices, but because they were the foundation of the latest and hottest theory among his peers.

That’s true because, as it turns out, Mahalik was far from the first person to consider masculinity and identify traits that were considered typical.  The linked-to article discusses four previous ones dating from 1970 – 1986.  There we see nothing about violence, power over women, etc. or much that could be considered negative.  We find traits like “Independence,” “Competent,” “Level-headed” and the like.  So yes, it seems Mahalik simply decided to surf a different wave.

Apparently Mahalik didn’t simply make up traits and call them “masculine.”  He established focus groups that met with him for 90 minutes per week for eight months.  The two groups together amounted to nine people.  Yes, nine – four in Group One and five in Group Two.  What were they like?

The curious part of this is that of the nine people in these two focus groups, only 3 were white men! Five of the nine were women. Here is the demographic composition of each focus group: (Group 1) 1 Asian American man, 1 European American man, 2 European American women; (Group 2) 2 European American men, 2 European American women, 1 Haitian Canadian woman.

So, having decided to study the traits of white males, he established focus groups that were 33% white males and 55% women.  Truly, I’m not making this up.  How Mahalik could pretend that such groups could possibly reflect men or affluent white men generally is simply beyond comprehension.  But it actually gets worse.

It’s worth noting that these focus groups included only grad students in counseling psychology. According to an e-mail from Mahalik, moreover, all were in their mid-20s.

In short, Mahalik’s inventory came from a tiny and utterly unrepresentative sliver of the populace.  And of course no effort has ever been made to validate his inventory as reflective of men or boys generally or even white ones.  Moreover, the focus groups were populated entirely by psychology graduate students.  Mahalik was their professor.  I wonder if they felt themselves disposed to provide him the information he was seeking.  I bet they did.

Are his categories accurate?  Do they describe either men themselves or what men tend to aspire to?  Again, the linked-to article makes some pithy points.

Is violence a masculine norm?  I don’t think so. In 2008 99.82% of men in the United States were not arrested for a violent crime.  That leaves about .18% who were.  Very far from being a norm.  Of the men you know how many are violent?  How about your father, brother, nephews or other male relatives, are they violent?  Probably not. And if they were, do you look up to their violent behavior? Do they model what you would like to be?

Of course much violence occurs without the participants being arrested for a violent crime.  But whatever the actual figure, the simple fact is that a tiny minority of men engage in violence and, when they do, it’s (a) exceptional and (b) generally looked down on.

And we know that, for example, women engage in domestic violence as much as or more than do men.  Does the APA have an inventory of female characteristics that includes “violence?”  The answer is that the APA does have a female inventory and it does not include violence.  Why?  My best guess has to do with sugar and spice…

Oh and, just in case readers are wondering, a total of eight of Mahalik’s publications are cited by the APA Guidelines, strongly indicating his influence on them.

From here, the Guidelines look like dangerous territory for men and boys seeking help from APA-informed therapists.

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